Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 15, 2017 10:04 am 
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Spirit time

Whether David Lowery's A Ghost Story is the story of a ghost or of a house, is a question that leads one into the nature of ghosts. Ghosts "haunt" houses: do they exist apart from them? They seem, anyway, not fussy about convention, because this one (who seems to love loud music and have a penchant for Beethoven's Ninth) chooses no fancier raiment than the traditional white sheet with two holes cut at the top, such as a kid trick-or-treating at Halloween would put on. So do his neighbor ghosts. A Ghost Story is utterly, ridiculously, conventional in some respects, only to be thoroughly original in others; and at times it may not make the cut and fall back into absurdity. Certainly one of its astonishments though is how quickly Lowery gets us to accept that silliness of the sheet, and ride with it, and derive haunting meanings and puzzlements from it. Thoughts about love and loss and the loneliness of time flow in and out of all that follows in this odd and original movie. Sometimes, too, there are shots in which the sheet looks beautiful and shimmering and wholly appropriate.

Our acceptance of the ghost comes through the creeping naturalism of the initial scenes of two people, a couple living in a house, on whom we've been eavesdropping until it rears its white-sheeted head. The sheet-wearer rises up from the corpse of Casey Affleck, a musician who's been living with Rooney Mara, but has gotten himself killed in a car accident one morning out in front of the house. (They are back working for Lowery as they were in his more pretentious and Malickian and less successful 2013 film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints.)

The house: maybe all this is about the house? Yes and no. Certainly the house figures importantly and we never learn anything about the couple before the time when they come to rent the house. It's a simple, unpretentious, suburban house. It has some tradition, though: the piano that never leaves it whoever comes and goes - a symbol of the "baraka" that stays with a place or thing, acquired through human use. It's a sort of one-storey I-frame, a long rectangle that mostly looks like one big room. It's in Texas, apparently, the "making of" details tell us - in Terrence Malick country. Lowery has been under the shadow of Malick for some years, though here, he has taken some tips in time-tripping from Shane Carruth, and seems further out on his own.

So we see the ghost of Casey Affleck comes back to the house, as a ghost, flowing in the sheet across a sweep of verdant field, to be with Rooney Mara. But she is bereaved and "it" cannot be there for her. And she doesn't stay there, though "it" will. She eats an entire pie, on screen, and throws up, and after meeting another man, moves out. A Hispanic family moves in. A kid plays the theme of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on the piano that stays with the house. Then Casey Ghost raises hell, smashes things, makes noises, flashes lights, and scares the daylights out of the family, who vanish away. The house is empty. The ghost drove them out! It's "haunted," now, not renting out so well, but used for a big party, at which a man (Lowery regular and collaborator Will Oldham) gives a long oration about civilization and mankind. Who knows what it means? But somehow, this speech pulls the entire movie together and makes it seem to take on substance. Maybe it's all too on the money. But note: there's a ghost watching!

The ghost slips around in time, or, at least, time means little to it. Thus it's not so very long - in screen time, that is; ghost time, mayhap - before the house is demolished - an action that contributes nicely to our sense of time passing - and the ghost is out on its own, unable to gnaw any longer at a wall where a note was secreted. (That gnawing a great objective correlative for "The Ayenbite of Inwyt.") It slips back in time, and sojourns, intimate, unseen, with a pioneer family in bonnets and homespun and no roof over their heads. But then we go back to just before all the action started in the demolished suburban house. The ghost is slipping around in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, but not nearly so freely, and not slipping around in space.

The tediously slow real-time consumption of the pie by the grieving Rooney Mara, which the ghost watches silently and we watch with it, is intentionally designed to contrast with the speeded-up time that gradually takes over the movie later on after she disappears from the scene. Even if it's only wind blowing through dust, we're watching all from the point of view of the ghost. And that is always going to be a tricky one. This is an unreliable narrator: or is it simply an inscrutable one? As when the two ghosts communicate silently with subtitles, and one tells the other it's waiting for someone. "Who?" "I've forgotten." Lowery can be pretentious and skirts that here, but at least there is a droll humor.

It's all pretty mysterious. Was the house not haunted all along? Then what role does Casey's ghost play there? We never learn. But the lack of a coherent story or pat explanations is the beauty of Lowery's effort. He takes us to a world we do not know, with enough confidence to make us feel that we're there, watching the ghost, as it ghost watches.

Though a ghost's existence must be richest in longeurs, there aren't those here. Something is happening every minute, decade, or year. And the sound, mostly rich orchestral music, is satisfying, and perhaps a ghostly player. If an emanation of the spirit of the house - given that Casey Affleck's character was a musician - it can be seen and heard as diegetic music. Music or no, however, this is a story of anguish and loneliness, ultimately cosmic in nature, even if for the moment restricted to a Dallas neighborhood.

A Ghost Story, 92 mins., debuted at Sundance; also Chicago, Sundance London, Seattle, Sydney, BAM, Karlovy, plus Galway, Fantasia, New Horizons. US theatrical release began 7 July 2017.

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